Secretary Chu: Obama Still Supports Expanding Nuclear Plants In The U.S.

Mar 16, 2011 1:45pm

ABC News’ Mary Bruce reports: 

Despite the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, President Obama continues to support nuclear power and the construction of new reactors in the U.S., Energy Secretary Steven Chu said this morning on Capitol Hill.

At a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., asked Chu where the president stands and whether he still supports a “rebirth” of nuclear power in the United States.

“The president and the administration believe we have to be looking very, very closely at the events in Japan. We have to apply whatever lessons that can be and will be learned from what has happened and what is happening in Japan,” Chu explained. “Those lessons would then be applied to first look at our current existing fleet of reactors, to make sure that they can be used safely and… how as one proceeds forward, any lessons learned can be applied.”

“It would be premature to say anything other than we will use this opportunity to learn as best we can,” he said.

Barton pushed back “I’m not sure what you just said. Does the president support new nuclear power plant construction in the United States?”

Chu went on to explain that the president’s budget calls for $36 billion for loan guarantees for new reactors. “The president’s budget is what it is,” he said. “That position has not been changed.”

“So that’s a ‘yes’?” Barton asked.

“That’s a ‘yes.’” Chu replied.

Chu made clear that nuclear energy should continue to be part of a “diverse” energy portfolio in the U.S. But if this crisis can occur in Japan, how can Chu be sure it won’t happen here in the U.S.?

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., noted that Japan is using very advanced technology, similar to that being used in the U.S.  “Japan is a highly developed country. It is as technologically sophisticated as us, and there’s much concern in the U.S. that a similar accident can occur here. How do you respond to that concern?” he asked.

Chu agreed and said the U.S. will apply lessons learned in Japan here at home. “They are using more advanced designs. A number of reactors in the U.S. with similar designs, and we’re going to look at what went wrong in terms of this double-barreled whammy of this huge, huge earthquake and this huge tsunami and look to our reactors again and learn as much as we can so we can, if needed, improve the safety.”

The Secretary said his department plans to review whether nuclear reactors in the U.S. could withstand a similar natural disaster. “What we want to do is look at what happens in Japan and say if there are these multiple events… a terrible earthquake and a tsunami, and look to whether we would be vulnerable to a cascade of multiple events and how they might compromise safety,” Chu explained. “We first intend to look fully at whether we have considered all possibilities.”

Asked about the status of the nuclear crisis in Japan and the implications of a complete meltdown, Chu explained “we think there is a partial meltdown, but as you correctly noted, that doesn’t necessarily mean the containment vessel will fail. Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown and it did not fail.”

“We hear conflicting reports about exactly what is happening in the several reactors that are now at risk and I would not want to speculate on exactly what will happening. Let’s just say that we monitor it very closely and we’ll take it as it comes,” he said.

- Mary Bruce

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